Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life - Neil Strauss (2009)
Part II. FIVE STEPS
Only the gods can dwell forever with the Sun.
As for the human beings, their days are numbered.
And it is no more than blustery weather,
No matter what they try to achieve.
—Gilgamesh, Tablet II, 2100 B.C.
STEP 1: DECEMBER 31, 1999
You need to pick a group that won’t kill you.”
The voice on the phone was that of Jo Thomas. A fellow New York Times reporter, she was on the cult and terrorism beat. She’d interviewed Timothy McVeigh after the Oklahoma City bombing, covered the Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland at the height of their reign of terror, and investigated the aftermath of David Koresh and his bloody last stand against the FBI in Waco.
I had just volunteered to spend New Year’s Eve 1999 with a death cult. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But, just to be safe, I’d called Jo for advice.
The newspaper was sending reporters to different locations to prepare a package of features on the millennial moment. And I wanted to take part in it. I envisioned a group of middle-aged men and women on a remote hillside, clasping hands and awaiting the apocalypse. And I wanted to see the look on their faces when the world didn’t end at the stroke of midnight. I wanted to hear how they would rationalize it afterward.
Back then, I had no idea that I’d ever feel unsafe in America or be preparing for disaster myself. We seemed to stand monolithic and invulnerable at the center of the political, cultural, and moral universe, unchallenged as the world’s lone superpower. For all the headlines screaming doomsday and worldwide computer shutdown, no sane person really believed life was going to come to an end just because a calendar year was changing. We’d survived the last millennium well enough.
But there were some very panicked people out there who truly didn’t think we’d make it to January 1. And those people, Jo warned, were not just likable kooks.
“I don’t think anyone in New York knows how scary these groups are,” she explained. “A lot of them are nuts who stockpile guns. And most of them consider the media the enemy … especially the New York Times.”
She then gave concrete examples of just how dangerous these groups could be. One antigovernment militia group in Sacramento had just been busted for planning to incinerate two twelve-million-gallon propane tanks to start a revolution for the New Year. And a second group, calling itself the Southeastern States Alliance, had been caught three days earlier trying to blow up energy plants in Florida and Georgia.
“That’s crazy,” I thanked her for the advice. “I’ll definitely be careful with this.”
That didn’t satisfy her. “I don’t know how old you are,” she warned before hanging up, “but however old you are, you’re not ready to leave this world.”
Death isn’t something we’re born afraid of. It’s something we learn to fear. According to studies, children have little conception of death up to age five. From five to eight, they have a vague understanding of the finality of death. Only at nine do they begin to understand that death is something that one day may happen to them.
My awakening came at the age of nine, thanks to the copy of the Chicago Sun-Times that my parents left on the kitchen table every day. One morning, this caught my eye:
I sat down and read the story. Dozens of bodies of young boys, many of them close to my age, had been found buried in a basement and yard in the northwest section of Chicago, my hometown. A birthday clown named John Wayne Gacy had tortured, molested, and killed them. From that day forward, I realized I was no longer the master of my own safety. It wasn’t just climbing trees and running with scissors that could harm me—it was other people.
Before making my decision about the millennium, I called a friend of Jo’s at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks cults and hate groups, and asked him to recommend a few relatively safe sects to celebrate with.
“There’s a very anti-Semitic fascist group called the Society of St. Pius X in Kansas you might want to look into,” suggested Mike Reynolds, one of the center’s militia task force investigators. “They’re probably not going to do anything to you.”
“Well, there’s also William Cooper, who heads a militia group in Arizona. He’s training them to go to war after New Year, when Satan is supposed to appear. Or you can try Tom Chittum, who’s looking to start a race riot, which he calls Civil War II. Maybe that would be too dark for you. Then there are the Black Hebrew Israelites in Chicago…”
Clearly Mike didn’t care if I survived the New Year.
Despite the Oklahoma City bombing five years earlier, I had no idea there were so many networks actively trying to destroy America from within. Where reading about John Wayne Gacy had woken me up to the danger lone madmen posed to my safety, talking with Reynolds opened my eyes to the existence of organized groups of them. So in light of this information, I decided to narrow my search to more friendly, unarmed, cuddly doomsday groups.
The next day, I began sending solicitous e-mails to various doomsayers and survivalists, asking if I could spend a few hours with them as the year changed over. I promised to bring my own food, water, and emergency supplies, hoping that somehow this would convince them I was a believer.
I soon discovered that one of the difficulties in writing about people who think the world is going to end is that they instantly know you don’t believe them. Because if you did, you’d know there wouldn’t be anyone left the next day to read your article.
The first person I contacted was Thomas Chase, a writer and theorist who predicted that the millennium bug would cause a massive electrical crash, triggering a worldwide depression and the coming of the Antichrist. I wondered what kind of sacred and meaningful ritual he’d be performing to prepare for the terror of the apocalypse.
“I plan on going to Boston’s First Night celebration with my wife, Peg,” he responded. “I’ve usually gone every year for the last few years.”
What about preparing for the End Times? “I did stock up on some extra water,” he offered.
The prospect of spending New Year’s Eve on the Charles River, then going back to Chase’s house to drink water with his wife wasn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize material. So I decided to call Jack Van Impe, a televangelist who’d been preaching the apocalypse since before it was trendy. He’d been warning viewers regularly to prepare for the coming devastation of Y2K.
But when I asked Rev. John R. Lang, the executive director of his ministry, what Van Impe was doing to prepare, he told me their leader planned to “ring in the New Year” with Mrs. Van Impe and family at home watching television.
After four more calls with similar results, the whole Y2K doomsday thing began to look like a big hoax. Perhaps it was just simple economics: with tabloid readers and journalists (including me) clamoring for people who thought the world was going to end on January 1, 2000—after all, something significant should happen to commemorate such a lovely round number—scores of attention-hungry people arose to fulfill the demand. This was before the reality TV boom. There were fewer routes to national humiliation back then.
So, in an act of desperation, I decided to ignore Jo Thomas’s advice and contact the most dangerous group on the list.